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NCLB Outrages

The Seven Deadly Absurdities of No Child Left Behind

by Gerald W. Bracey

A recent website headline read “Revolt Against No Child Left Behind Spreads to 47 States.” It’s about time. If one considers Iraq and Katrina to be twin disasters for the Bush Administration, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) makes it a trifecta. Although the law consumes over 1100 pages, its most egregious flaws can be quickly described as The Seven Deadly Absurdities:

1. The law uses the phrase “scientifically based research” 111 times and demands that such research support any educational programs that a school or district adopts. The U. S. Department of Education judged that the reading program favored by New York City lacked such support and withheld $47 million in grants until the city caved. But there is no scientifically based research—or any research—to support the law’s mandates. No research supports NCLB’s contention that the way to improve schools is to test every child every year and to fail schools and districts that do no make the required—and wholly arbitrary--Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Indeed, research argues against the use of such high-stakes testing as an instrument of school reform. Tests that serve as useful monitors lose their credibility, validity and value when high stakes are attached. As researcher Donald Campbell noted many years ago, the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more the indicator and the users are likely become corrupted.

2. NCLB lacks research support because NCLB depends solely on punishment. As schools fail to make the arbitrary AYP, the law imposes punitive, increasingly harsh sanctions. The law follows the grand tradition of “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

3. Even those who think punishment can motivate people would never use it as NCLB does. It punishes the entire school for the failures of the few, often the very few. If a school’s special education students fail to make AYP, the whole school fails. If a school’s English language learners fail to make AYP the whole school fails. If a mere 5% of any group fails to show up on test day, the whole school fails. NCLB requires schools to report test score data by various student categories--- ethnicity, socioeconomic status, special education, etc. Most schools have 37 such categories (California has more). Schools thus have 37 opportunities to fail, only one to succeed.

4. The law demands that all students must be proficient in reading, math, and science by 2014. In his 2003 presidential address to the American Educational Research Association, testing expert Robert Linn projected it would take 61 years, 66 years, and 166 years, respectively, to get fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders to the proficient level in math. Alas, Linn’s projections are wildly optimistic. They assume that each increase in percent proficient is equally easy to attain. It is obvious, though, that it is easier to make AYP the first few years than in the last few when schools will be working with children for whom all previous efforts have failed. Indeed, stories abound of schools currently targeting “bubble children”—those on the bubble near a passing score—in order to maximize their chances for making AYP.

Moreover, Linn created his projections from national results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, not data disaggregated by ethnicity. In the 2003, though, only 5 percent of African-American eighth graders and 7 percent of Hispanics were proficient in math. Only 37 percent of whites, 43 percent of Asians, and 15 percent of Native Americans reached this plateau. A recent journal article found the 100% proficient requirement so irrational it could well be unconstitutional.

5. As a consequence of #3 and #4 above, California projects that by the deadline year of 2014, NCLB will label 99 percent of its schools “failing.” California students generally do poorly tests, but high-scoring states will experience massive failure as well. For instance, in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, only 6 of the 41 participating countries outscored high-flying Minnesota in mathematics and only one of 41 attained a higher science score. Yet the state’s Legislative Auditor projected that by 2014, NCLB will find 80 percent of Minnesota’s schools wanting. A September, 2005 study estimated a 95% failure rate for six Great Lakes states, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.

6. Any school that fails to make AYP for two consecutive years must offer all students the option to transfer to a “successful” school. Thus, if a school’s special education students or English Language Learners fail to make AYP two years in a row, the school must offer all students the “choice option” in spite of the fact that the school succeeded for the other 35 student categories.

In cities and rural areas, the choice option is a farce. To exercise choice in some rural areas entails a two-hour ride. In some parts of Alaska and Hawaii it requires airplanes. In 2004-2005, Chicago had 200,000 students eligible, but only 500 spaces for them. Although New York had more eligibles than Chicago—about 350,000—in 2003-2004, only 8,000 students chose to transfer. These 8,000, though, apparently created so much havoc in the receiving schools that principals rebelled. Responding to these principals, public schools Chancellor, Joel Klein, deliberately flouted the law, permitting only 1,000 transfers. Thus far, the Department of Education has not responded to Klein’s scofflaw defiance.

7. This is the biggie: Schools alone cannot possibly accomplish what NCLB demands. But this is what NCLB mandates. It commands schools, all by themselves, to close the achievement gap between affluent and poor, majority and minority. This is ridiculous. The gap appears before kids reach school—one study found that the three-year-olds of professional mothers used more words when interacting with their mothers than mothers on welfare used in interacting with their three-year-olds. That’s right, three year old kids in one group used more words than adults in another group. After all, if one assumes a six-hour school day and a 180-day school year, then between birth and age18 children spend only 9 percent of their lives in schools. Family and community factors such as poverty affect achievement (asthma and low birth-weight infants are epidemic in some city slums; fathers and libraries in short supply). Poor children enter school well behind their middle class peers. They learn the same amount during the school year, but they lose the gains over the summer and they fall farther and farther behind. Critics blame the schools for what happens in the months the schools are closed.

Other absurdities exist--for instance, the contention that any student not “proficient” is “left behind” promotes a false dichotomy. If the threshold for “proficient” is, say, a test score of 80, then a child who scores 79 is “left behind.” In actuality, achievement is a continuum, not a dichotomy.

Some have always viewed NCLB as yet another Bush administration Orwellian Double Speak program doing the opposite of what its name implies—like Clean Waters, Clear Skies, Healthy Forests. Behind the cover of its idealistic-sounding moniker, No Child Left Behind really intends to increase the use of vouchers, increase the privatization of public schools, transfer large sums of public funds to the private sector, reduce the size of the public sector, and weaken or destroy the teachers unions (two Democratic power bases). It is working.

Although children and their teachers lose under the law, the testing companies have benefited mightily from it. F. Peter Jovanovich of the mammoth Pearson Education looked at NCLB and said, “This reads almost like our business plan.” Then-Educational Testing Service vice president, Sharon Robinson, reportedly called the law “The Test Publishers Full Employment Act.” The law gifts testing companies over $2 billion annually.

The hot properties currently, though, are those that provide tutoring and other instruction that the law designates as “Supplementary Educational Services.” Nationally, some 1800 providers can collect as much as $2 billion dollars a year. And, while the law holds public schools accountable for making progress or not, it visits no such sanctions on these private companies. The test preparation and tutoring companies have no obligation to prove that their programs actually work and no “scientifically based research” supports the contention that they do. No one is looking at the results of the Supplementary Educational Services. U. S. Department of Education spokespeople are on record saying that they merely want to create conditions such that “the market [for providers] can be as vibrant as possible.” (In fact, such services were not a part of the original plan. That plan called for vouchers to send students to private schools. The supplemental services were added when Congress rejected the voucher provisions. If FEMA had responded as quickly to Katrina as the administration turned to vouchers as part of its Katrina repair program, Michael Brown might still head the agency).

An enduring mystery of NCLB is that prominent Democrats such as Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and George Miller of California supported its passage. In spring, 2004, Senator Kennedy and Representative Miller received information, both by email and postal service mail, explaining the logic of the outcomes described above. Senator Kennedy did not respond. From Representative Miller’s office, a staffer emailed a single sentence: “I certainly hope not.” From such a response one must conclude that Congress is not giving NCLB the critical scrutiny it requires.

The current law mandates annual testing for all children in grades three through eight in reading and math with science to be added in 2007. It also requires testing in one high school grade, to be decided by each state. President Bush has proposed extending the testing through the high school years. Given the chaos that the current law is producing in the lower grades, Bush’s proposal constitutes the domestic equivalent of invading Iran.

Gerald W. Bracey is an Associate of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, Ypsilanti, Michigan and a fellow of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U. S.: Second Edition (Heinemann, 2004).

i. Formally, Campbell’s Law states, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures, and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
ii. The speech was published in the October 2003 Educational Researcher.
iii. Wiley, Edward, Mathis, William and Garcia, David. “The Impact of the AYP Requirement of the Federal “No Child Left Behind” Act on Schools in the Great Lakes Region. www.asu.edu/educ/epsl/EPRU/documents/EPSL-0509-109-EPRU.pdf.
iv. Betty Hart and Todd Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes, 1995.
v. “Alexander, Karl, Entwisle, Doris, and Olson, Linda, “Schools Achievement, and Inequality: A Seasonal Perspective. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Summer, 2001.
vi. Bracey, Gerald W., No Child Left Behind: Where Does the Money Go? www.asu.edu/educ/epsl/EPRU/documents/EPSL-0506-114-EPRU.pdf
vii. Ibid.

Gerald W. Bracey is an Associate of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, Ypsilanti, Michigan and a fellow of the Education Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Setting the Record Straight: Responses to Misconceptions About Public Education in the U. S.: Second Edition (Heinemann, 2004).

— Gerald W. Bracey
Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency (EDDRA)


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